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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Georgia Coast & Okefenokee

By Richard J. Lenz

Design by Lenz, Inc. Decatur, Georgia.



Sherpa Guides > Georgia Coast & Okefenokee> Southern Coast > St. Simons Island > St. Simons: Village Area & Southeastern End

St. Simons: Village Area & Southeastern End

The Village area of St. Simons, located at the southern end of the island at Mallery Street and Ocean Boulevard, is the best place to start your visit of the island. From here, one can visit the historic lighthouse, fish or crab off the pier, hold a picnic, start a bike tour of the island, walk the beach, browse one of the village shops, or eat in one of St. Simons's finer restaurants. This part of the island is developed and busy; nonetheless, the natural setting is quite beautiful, with large Live Oaks shading the view of the shimmering St. Simons Sound and Jekyll Island beyond. Shrimp boats are seen trafficking between offshore shrimping grounds and their harbor in Brunswick. Walking north on the beach, a lesson can be learned in the ephemeral character of barrier island sand, while observing a variety of shorebirds feeding on amphipods and fish in the intertidal areas and inlets. In many areas, homes perched practically on top of rip-rap rocks appear ready to fling themselves into the ocean. In other areas, dunes have been allowed to endure and support the fascinating plant and animal communities that populate the dynamic area between beach and forest.

Neptune Park, Fishing Pier & Village, St. Simons Visitor Center

[Fig. 20(7)] Neptune Park, located between the village and lighthouse, is St. Simons's most popular park, where visitors can picnic, take a trolley tour of the island, fish off the pier, stroll on the pathway, or relax on a bench. Here visitors may listen to the cackling of iridescent boat-tailed grackles in the live oak canopies, or the screech of begging seagulls, or the noble silence of brown pelicans perched on the pier. One might want to examine finned trophies that lie gasping in buckets, if local fishermen have been lucky angling the deep currents that flow past the pier. The beach is best explored at low tide, when one might find whelks, horseshoe crabs, and sand dollars.

The park's name is not in honor of Neptune, the god of sea, but Neptune Small, a slave that belonged to the Thomas Butler King family of Retreat Plantation, today the site of Sea Island Golf Course. During the Civil War, Small accompanied one of the Kings' sons, who was killed during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Small retrieved the body from the battleground and bore it back to Savannah under very difficult circumstances. The family buried the son at Christ Church, and Small chose to return to Virginia to accompany another son for the rest of the bloody conflict. After the war, Small was given a plot of land on the plantation, located at the park, and he continued to work for the King family as a free man. When he died in 1907, he was buried in a small graveyard on Retreat Plantation.

Two exceptionally large Live Oaks are found shading the park, where visitors can use picnic tables, a playground, miniature golf, and benches and lounge chairs for contemplative views of sparkling St. Simons Sound. Neptune Park Casino has a public swimming pool open during summer. A 1.5-hour trolley tour leaves from here to other points of interest on the island, but some may prefer to see it under their own steam by using the biking/jogging path. The fishing pier is open to fishing, crabbing, and shrimping.

The village got its start in the 1870s resort period, when vacationers traveled from the mainland on steamships. Most of the early historic buildings of St. Simons were destroyed by fire. The St. Simons Hotel was built in 1888 near Massengale Park, which was linked to the pier by mule-drawn trolley. The grand structure, large enough to host 300 guests, was destroyed by fire in December of 1898. The New St. Simons Hotel was built at the same location in 1910, but in 1916, it too burned. Nonetheless, St. Simons continued to be popular with vacationers, and four other hotels were established near the pier, including the Bellevue, which was renamed St. Simons Hotel.

The third St. Simons Hotel, located at the end of the pier, was replaced by the first Casino Building, which burned in 1934. The area started to develop more rapidly with the building of the causeway in 1924, and more visitors opted to become year-round residents. With a growing population, a village of small shops and businesses was able to flourish year-round by the 1950s, and by 1960, the resident population was 3,199. Today, the village is the focal point of commercial and tourist activities on the island. The St. Simons Visitor Center is located in the second Casino Building at the northern end of Neptune Park and offers a complete assortment of visitor facilities and information, including a library, restrooms, a theater playhouse, and an outdoor bandstand. Read more information on restaurants, lodging, and night life.

St. Simons Lighthouse and Museum of Coastal History

[Fig. 20(8)] Perhaps the most beautiful and recognizable landmark on the Georgia coast is the St. Simons Lighthouse, a much-visited, photographed, and beloved monument to the island's nautical history. On a clear day, the climb of 129 steps to the top of the 104-foot gleaming white tower allows perhaps the most glorious view to be experienced on the Georgia coast. The keeper's cottage, where the museum is located, is believed to be the oldest brick structure in Glynn County. It was built of Savannah grey brick with Georgia heart pine floors in 1872, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The museum is furnished with antiques that belonged to the old families of St. Simons, including one early nineteenth century secretary from Retreat Plantation.

Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) This butterfly takes its name from its yellow wings with black tigerlike stripes. The first structure built in the area of the lighthouse was Delegal's Fort, built in spring of 1936 by troops from South Carolina. It was replaced in 1738 by Fort St. Simons, which was destroyed by retreating Spanish troops after their defeat in the Battle of Bloody Marsh in 1742. The area became a plantation owned by John Couper, who sold 4 acres for $1 to the Federal government for the construction of a lighthouse. In 1807, James Gould of Massachusetts was hired to build the first lighthouse. Although the original specifications called for brick, Gould used tabby, a cheap, durable "coastal concrete" made of equal parts oyster shells, lime, sand, and water. He built a 75-foot octagonal tower, 25 feet in diameter at the base tapering to 10 feet at the top. The top 12.5 feet were constructed of brick, and supported a 10-foot-high, 8-foot-diameter iron lantern equipped with oil lamps suspended by chains. An 8-foot-thick base supported the weight of the structure. In 1810, Gould was appointed first keeper by President James Madison, and was paid $400 a year until his retirement in 1837. The lantern was originally powered by whale oil, but when the majestic animals were hunted to near extinction, lighthouses switched to kerosene. St. Simons Island author Eugenia Price wrote a historical novel about Gould's efforts, titled simply The Lighthouse, which was the second installment in her trilogy about St. Simons Island.

In 1857, the lights of the lighthouse were greatly improved when it was fitted with a third-order, double-convex lens, which can cast a beam 18 miles. This improvement was to be short-lived, however, because of the arrival of the Civil War in 1860. Stationed at Fort Brown, a wooden bastion near the lighthouse to protect St. Simons Sound, were the Macon artillery troops and six field guns. In 1862, when Union warships blockaded the Georgia coast, the Confederates decided to abandon St. Simons, and before leaving, they dynamited the lighthouse and burned Fort Brown so they would not aid their enemy. The ruins of this first lighthouse are found on the complex grounds east of the tower.

After the Civil War, the Federal government decided a new lighthouse was needed on St. Simons Island. Hired to design and build the lighthouse and keeper's house was noted Irish-born architect Charles Cluskey. He designed a graceful, 104-foot, round tower and a nine-room, two-story Victorian house for the keeper. The architectural details not only enhance the beauty of the house but also draw the eye upward to the lighthouse. Cluskey died of malaria a year before he was able to see his work finished in 1872. In 1876, the keeper's house was upgraded and a speaker's tube linking the house with the top of the tower was added. A fire-proof brick oil house measuring 9 feet by 11 feet that could hold 450, 5-gallon oil cans was constructed next to the lighthouse in 1890. This building's purpose became obsolete when the kerosene lamp was replaced by an electrical one in 1934. When the last lighthouse keeper retired in the 1950s, the U.S. Coast Guard fully automated the lighthouse. Today, the Fresnel lens is illuminated by a 1,000-watt mogul lamp, which rotates once a minute.

In 1972, the Coastal Georgia Historical Society took over the unused keeper's house, restored it to its original design, and opened it to the public. A series of renovation and restoration activities continued on the tower and complex until 1984, when visitors were allowed to climb to the top of the lighthouse.

Today, the romantic lure of the lighthouse is irresistible on a foggy night, as the light sweeps slowly out into the night, comforting sailors in the sound and reassuring residents in the community that part of their heritage remains intact for future generations to appreciate.

Bloody Marsh Monument

[Fig. 20(13)] This small park provides a panorama of the eastern marshes of St. Simons Island, while it informs the visitor of the Battle of Bloody Marsh. Though it was a relatively small engagement, the outcome had a tremendous influence on the future course of Georgia. An exhibit explains the engagement and a plaque honors Oglethorpe's resolve to keep the Georgia territory in the hands of the British empire.

Geologically, the high ground of the park is the Pleistocene (35,000 years ago) shoreline of St. Simons Island, which existed before Sea Island and East Beach were formed to the east 5,000 years ago. The "Bloody Marshes" filled the lagoon created by the younger, sandy barriers. Marsh species display zonation, with Live Oaks on the highest, driest ground, cedar at the woodland edge, and marsh elder and groundsel trees by the edge of the marsh, going down to saltwort, glasswort, bunch grass (Spartina bakeri), salt meadow cordgrass (Spartina patens), and needlerush. Wading birds, such as herons and egrets, are observed fishing the shallower open waters of the marsh, which drain into Postell Creek and enter the ocean at Gould's Inlet.

In 1739, Britain declared war on the Spanish, called the War of Jenkins' Ear. Jenkins was an English smuggler who had his ship boarded by the Spanish off the Florida coast. When the Spanish couldn't find any contraband, Jenkins testified to the English House of Commons, one of the officers grew angry and sliced off his ear. This outraged England, which had been spoiling for a fight with Spain for years. In the vulnerable southern colonies of America, Oglethorpe decided to act first, and laid siege to Spanish-held St. Augustine in 1740, but he was unsuccessful. Two years later, the Spanish sailed past the guns of Fort St. Simons and landed near Gascoigne's Bluff with approximately 2,000 men supported by 50 ships. Flanked and outmanned, Oglethorpe abandoned Fort St. Simons and withdrew his 900 troops along Military Road toward Fort Frederica.

The first action of the day occurred within sight of Fort Frederica at Gully Hole Creek, where a force of Scottish Highlanders, English Rangers, and Indians led by Oglethorpe repulsed an advancing regiment of 200 Spaniards, causing them to retreat. Back in camp, the Spanish commander and governor of Florida, Manuel de Montiano, learning of the defeat, sent several hundred troops up the military road to cover the retreat. Meanwhile, Oglethorpe's men waited in ambush near the road, and at the last possible moment, the Scots and English rangers opened fire on the unprepared Spanish troops, causing anywhere from 100 to 500 casualties, depending on whose account one believes. The marshes reportedly "ran red with blood." The Spanish returned to the south end, and after contemplating the situation for a week, destroyed Fort St. Simons, boarded their ships, and left the Georgia coast for good, ensuring that Georgia and the territories to the north would be of British heritage and speak the English language. The military clash passed into the history books as the Battle of Bloody Marsh.

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